Several months ago I was asked to write about what my yoga practice looks like with my chronic disease, cystic fibrosis. I’ve been pondering how best to express it and I think the most effective way to talk about it would be as an FAQ – with questions asked from the perspective of someone with CF. Keep in mind this is coming only from my own experience as a person with CF and my yoga instructor training. Your experience may (will!) be different than mine, and that is a wonderful and beautiful thing.
What type of yoga class would you recommend for someone with CF?
Let’s put first things first, make sure that you’re really feeling up to it before you go to a class. That doesn’t mean that you feel perfect (who does?), and indeed the times when we don’t feel so great can be the very times when yoga is most beneficial. But make sure that you are healthy enough for exercise and choose a class at an appropriate level. For example, if you’re feeling under the weather and really need a gentle restorative practice, it could be counterproductive or demoralizing to go to a power yoga class. When you go to class, it’s also a good idea to let the instructor know that you’re ill (you don’t necessarily even have to say why) and will be going at your own pace. That way the instructor knows that if you cough or take time out to rest in child’s pose (“Balasana”), you’re just doing what your body asks.
I highly recommend starting with a “gentle” style class if you are new to yoga. Gentle yoga is usually geared more toward breathing and healthy body alignment and less toward intense strengthening or stretching. It is great for learning the basic foundational principles of yoga while expanding lung capacity and learning to link motion with breath. I wouldn’t recommend starting off with a Bikram (or “hot yoga”) style class. Some people love hot yoga, but those of us with CF are generally prone to heat stroke and staying hydrated is particularly important – so personally I choose to avoid it and not tempt fate.
What if I have a coughing fit? I would feel really self conscious.
Yoga is all about letting go of judgment – that means judgment of ourselves as well as others. If you have to cough, that’s OK. You are the best judge of your body and your health, so if you cough and get the stink eye from the person next to you, that is their problem, not yours. If you have to cough, cough into your arm, sleeve or a towel (I keep a washcloth handy at the front corner of my mat). And it is always OK to come out of a pose to grab a drink from your water bottle or move into a resting posture like child’s pose.
Giving the secretions in our lungs some gravitational help to move around can be a good thing, but sometimes moderation is needed. If you need to minimize coughing for whatever reason, you might want to avoid spending much time in inverted poses (where your heart is above your head).
What poses do you consider most beneficial for CF?
Ooh, there are so many poses (I’ll use the Sanskrit word “Asanas”) that I love. These are just a few:
For lungs: Flowing series of motions that link asanas together with breath – one breath to one motion (like cat & cow) – are great. I am also a big fan of chest-opening asanas. Feeling the chest open and the air rush in is invigorating. These do involve backbends of one degree or another, so be attentive to your body’s limits.
And for the more adventurous (these are some of my favorites):
For muscles that are sore or fatigued from coughing: My lats, shoulders, and neck bear the brunt of my coughing. So I love neck releasing postures: A simple neck stretch (lowering the head toward the shoulder), or a forward fold (let the head hang freely). And side-stretching postures for the lats: anything in this article, or revolved head-to-knee, or wild thing (yes, I really like wild thing as it does double-duty).
For relaxation: Savasana (“corpse pose”) is the best and most important part of a yoga practice, though it’s challenging and often short-changed by beginners. Letting the body fully relax and finding stillness in the mind is wonderfully restorative to our stressed bodies and anxious minds. This is an intentional moment of peace and rest – savor it!
How about breathing techniques?
Pranayamas, as they are called, are wonderful for waking up the lungs and I find them one of the best parts of yoga. Just look at the natural structure of the lungs in the picture here – pranayama breathing practice helps get air out to all these tiny little airways that easily become blocked.
My favorite breath techniques (and they’re easy to learn!):
An ocean breath (“Ujjayi”) uses a little whisper of air when you exhale to relax you and help you focus on the present moment. Bonus tip: Try this when you’re having trouble falling asleep at night.
A three-part yoga breath (“Dirga Pranayama”) is a wonderful tool for getting air into all the far reaches of our lungs that are often ignored in our day-to-day lives. Breathe low expanding the belly, then into the lower lobes of the lungs, then up into the upper lungs around the sternum. Then exhale, bringing the navel toward the spine.
One more bonus tip: often at the beginning of a yoga class during pranayama exercises, you’ll hear the instruction to “exhale fully” – ridding yourself of ALL air in the lungs. Don’t feel like you have to do that; for me, this is a no-go. With all the secretions in my lungs I find that if I really exhale fully, my airways stick together and a coughing spell will ensue. And since I do intentionally exhale fully during daily airway clearance sessions anyway, it’s not like I need to do it in yoga class. You are the best judge of what is good for your body – if you don’t exhale fully nobody will know or put you on trial for being a bad yogi.
If you could offer me only one piece of advice about attempting yoga, what would it be?
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve taken from a regular yoga practice is to be fully in the moment. That means listening to my body, not judging myself or comparing myself to others, or even my own expectations of what I should be able to do. Our bodies are constantly changing, and on any given day we might feel different than we ever have before. As a naturally competitive person always driving myself to be better, learning to let go of competition and simply accepting things as they are is exceptionally freeing. Yoga has made me appreciative of what my body can do, instead of getting angry at the things it can’t.
Again, this is just my experience from dealing with my own condition. Your body will be different and not everything that works for me will work for you, so first and foremost be attentive to what your body is telling you. I only have myself as a data point, so I would love to hear about what others with CF have experienced in their yoga practice. Feel free to leave a comment or send me a private message if you have any other insights or questions about practicing yoga with CF!
UPDATE 1/19/2017: I’ve now completed a series of yoga videos specifically for people with CF!
Check out this page for more information, links, and a free trial discount code!